Critics’ Picks

View of “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now),” 2018.

New York

“Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)”

The Met Breuer
945 Madison Avenue
March 21 - July 22

“Like Life” suggests that lifelikeness is the core business of Western sculpture. The historical platform it puts under contemporary practice makes it a near manifesto of plenty more to come. The 117 deftly chosen items for this exhibition range from gems of naturalism by great names (Donatello’s Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano, ca. 1430, which may have been modeled after the subject’s death mask), to forensic gadgets and philosophical toys by nonartists, such as the Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham, 1832 (a life-size effigy of the titular philosopher that contains his skeleton, casually seated in his brand new vitrine, wearing his own clothes, holding his favorite walking stick). That item granddaddies the work of living artists whose hyperlikenesses close the exhibition parentheses: Duane Hanson, Ron Mueck, Elmgreen & Dragset, and Charles Ray among them.

Keynote catalogue essays insist that lifelikeness requires color, and accuse the historical critics who imposed the white monochrome of excavated statuary as the one color of high art. The exhibition contents rather unmake that thesis. Clearly, artists (the ancients included) couldn’t ever keep their hands off the weirdest realness they could get, and color was only one tool in the box. The spellbound work of verisimilitude, although often tedious, never paused and has perhaps never been busier than today.

From color to technology—will it bring us yet-undreamed-of queasiness? The latest in hypericons, Goshka Macuga’s To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, 2016, is a life-size seated figure that wakes, blinks, gestures, and talks. Yet some of the far less “real” things here move us with not so much reality; it’s often only a very slight coup de théâtre that accosts us. Rodin’s glass-paste Mask of Hanako, Type E, 1911, weakly pigmented and lying back in a modest vitrine (Rodin kept it on a pillow), is a fair example. Just a little lifelikeness may be enough.